Discerning the Work of the Spirit

Samuel T. Logan, Jr.

New Horizons: June 2001

The Holy Spirit

Also in this issue

The Spirit-Filled Christian

The Return of the Holy Spirit

The Leading of the Spirit (Part 1)

The Door Opens in Québec

What do you think about 'the Toronto Blessing'...or the Pensacola revival...or T. D. Jakes...or ____________ [fill in the blank with the latest 'revival' phenomenon near you]?"

"We know there is a problem with the OPC, because most of its churches are so small." "Well, we know there is a problem with many Korean churches, because they are so big!"

"Any minister who uses a manuscript when he preaches guarantees that his ministry will be out of touch, ineffective, and, in fact, counterproductive." "Are you kidding? Those who speak spontaneously are the problem because that style assures that mindless 'spontaneity' rather than thoughtful biblical understanding will characterize the congregation."

Do any of these comments sound familiar? I have heard them all—and fairly recently.

How do we respond to these issues (and others like them, such as the "worship wars" debates)? We surely say that Scripture alone is sufficient to answer them all. But I also have a habit, as a wanna-be church historian, to say that perhaps, just perhaps, the Lord has given to other members of his body insight into his all-sufficient Word from which I should learn. And I have a further habit of turning to Jonathan Edwards for his insight into Scripture on these and many other matters. Experience has taught me that, most of the time (not always, of course), his insights into Scripture are the most incisive, God-honoring, and accurate that I can find. With good reason did Martyn Lloyd-Jones call Edwards "the Mount Everest of theologians."

And with good reason has the Great Awakening of the 1740s been called the most traumatic spiritual event in this nation's history.

Here is just one indication of that. On his tour of the United States in 1979, Pope John Paul II drew his largest crowd in Chicago, where approximately one and a half million people, out of a total citywide population of somewhat over seven million, turned out for the mass he conducted. But by way of comparison, George Whitefield, on October 12, 1740, drew a crowd of some 30,000 to the Boston Common, and the total population of Boston, the largest colonial city at the time, was in the neighborhood of 13,000!

In terms of its impact upon society, then, the Great Awakening clearly surpassed any other spiritual event in America's history. And some scholars (like Alan Heimert of Harvard) have even argued that without the Awakening, there would have been no American Revolution.

But in the midst of the Awakening, some crazies appeared, led by a wildly emotional preacher named James Davenport. The rationalistic opponents of the revival, led by Boston's Charles Chauncy, used Davenport and others as examples to show how shallow and invalid the entire Awakening was. Chauncy's attacks, however, were parried, thrust for thrust, by the man to whose church Whitefield journeyed after leaving Boston on October 12, 1740—the pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards wrote his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections to respond to both Davenport and Chauncy, and there remains to this day no work surpassing it in terms of being a careful, precise, and thoroughly biblical exposition of the essential nature of the Christian life. It may be the most important book ever written in America; it surely is the most important for those who want to know how to answer questions like the ones with which I began this article.

How can we tell which of the fantastic events about which we have been hearing are genuinely Christian and which are not? This was the burning question during the Awakening. That's easy, replied Chauncy from his study in Boston. "One of the most essential things necessary in the new-forming men," he said in 1743, "is the reduction of men's passions to a proper regimen, in other words, the government of a sanctified understanding." And "the plain truth is," he continued, "an enlightened mind and not raised affections" identifies real Christians.

Not so, asserted Edwards in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. A Christian is created by the new birth, which totally transforms the personality and manifests itself primarily in a new and gracious sense of God.

Edwards's description of distinctively Christian experience is compelling:

There is given to the regenerated, a new supernatural sense, a certain divine spiritual taste. This is in its whole nature diverse from any former kinds of sensation of the mind, as tasting is diverse from any of the other five senses, and [as diverse] as the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas men get of honey by looking on it or feeling of it....

Edwards argues that the "felt awareness" of God's glory, a sensitivity to the beauty of holiness, characterizes the regenerate life. And he is right! So often when describing the effect of the new life which Christ gives, the Scriptures use images related to human senses. When the Spirit regenerates someone, he is able to see the truth and to hear the voice of his God. And surely Jesus is focusing kingdom attention on the saint's affections when he says that the great commandment is that we must "love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind."

But, lest Edwards or I be misunderstood, I would hasten to add that such affections, such sensitivity, should never be considered mere mindless emotionalism. Edwards was, in Religious Affections, addressing the Davenports as well as the Chauncys of his day, and thus he goes to great lengths to explain how and why holy affections must be grounded in biblically correct belief, and a full exposition of his thought must include this factor. Here is exactly what he says:

Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.... Now there are many affections which don't arise from any light in the understanding. And when it is thus, it is a sure evidence that these affections are not spiritual, let them be ever so high.

Edwards's position cannot, then, be mistaken. Right belief is essential; nevertheless, holy affections (based on right belief) define the Christian life. And, as is obvious from what happened in Northampton and elsewhere under Edwards's ministry, his sermons surely stirred the affections of those who heard them.

But what exactly are affections? They are not emotions or passions, Edwards argues, and certainly not mere thoughts (orthodox or otherwise). Affections are the deepest desires of the heart; they are the real (not the pretended, but the real) "seeking first" of the heart. And any person, most fundamentally, is that for which he or she most deeply and genuinely "seeks."

Working with this definition and the statements above, one can quickly see several things:

1. First, not all affections are good or biblically right—or, in Edwards's words, "genuinely spiritual." Everyone "seeks first" some things, but only those things commanded by God in his Word are right. Thus, there are all kinds of affections that are directly contrary to the Christian faith. The mere presence of "affections" is not a good thing. This is the basic point that Edwards makes in Part I of The Treatise on Religious Affections.

2. On the other hand, the church far too often makes decisions and distinctions and definitions that have nothing to do with "affections" at all, but rather with external adiaphora. During the Great Awakening, one "hot topic" was the presence or the absence of loud shrieking during the preaching of the Word. Some pro-Awakening ministers argued that if your worship service was quiet, that was a sure sign that it was not spiritual. But some anti-Awakening ministers argued that if your worship service was loud and boisterous, that was a sure sign that your worship was not biblical. In Part II of his Treatise, Edwards lists twelve things that are not signs of genuinely gracious affections—practices or activities that may or may not accompany genuinely gracious affections. And most of the things he lists are the very kinds of things that so many of us try, wrongly, to use today to answer questions like the ones with which I began.

3. Thirdly—well, it is probably best just to let Edwards speak for himself here, from Part III of his Treatise:

Whereas the exercise of true and holy love in the saints arises in another way, they do not first see that God loves them, and then see that he is lovely; but they first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious; their hearts are first captivated with this view, and then, consequentially, they see God's love, and great favor to them. The saints' affections begin with God.

The true saint, when under great spiritual affections, from the fulness of his heart is ready to speak much of God, his glorious perfections and works, the beauty and amiableness of Christ, and the glorious things of the gospel; but hypocrites, in their high affections, talk more of the discovery, than of the thing discovered.

The more a true saint loves God with a gracious love, the more he desires to love him, and the more uneasy he is at his lack of love to him; the more he hates sin, the more he desires to hate it and laments that he has so much remaining love to it. The more he thirsts and longs after God and holiness, the more he longs to long, and breathe out his very soul in longings after God.

Herein lie the biblical principles, exegeted by Edwards out of 1 Peter 1:8, on the basis of which preachers should decide what and how to preach, sessions should decide what kind of worship to promote, and evangelism committees should formulate strategies for discipling the nations. Yes, of course it is true that "holy affections are not heat without light" (and Edwards's first pastoral charge was in a Presbyterian church on Long Island where the Westminster standards specifically defined "the light"). But it is also true that "no light [and not even the light of the Westminster standards] is good which does not produce holy affection in the heart."

Sheer love for and worship of Jesus as he and his work are described in Scripture—this must be the goal of all that any Christian or any Christian church ever does. And answers to all sorts of critically important and practical questions must be sought out of this same framework. (For example, Edwards's Qualifications for Communion provides superb guidelines for how sessions should conduct interviews of prospective church members.)

So, in our important discussions of the affairs of church life, I would heartily recommend the perspective on God's Word from "Mount Everest."

The author, an OP minister, is the president of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2001.

New Horizons: June 2001

The Holy Spirit

Also in this issue

The Spirit-Filled Christian

The Return of the Holy Spirit

The Leading of the Spirit (Part 1)

The Door Opens in Québec

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